The state’s chief housing officer says her team is identifying land where new housing can be built and assessing needs.

Dozens of people voiced their concerns over Gov. Josh Green’s emergency housing proclamation as it relates to rebuilding Lahaina, the seaside West Maui town devastated by the deadly Aug. 8 wildfire, during a Maui County Council committee hearing Wednesday.

The proclamation, issued July 17, suspends several laws, including historic preservation, environmental review, sunshine and collective bargaining, and replaces them with different rules designed to speed development and ease the state’s housing crisis where the median cost of a home is $1.1 million.

The morning meeting opened with remarks from Chief Housing Officer Nani Medeiros, whom Green chose in November for a new Cabinet-level position to advise him on how to tackle the state’s housing crunch.

The Maui County Council heard from the public Tuesday at the Kalana O Maui building in Wailuku. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The Maui County Council heard from the public Wednesday on a plan to rebuild housing in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

After expressing condolences over the 115 lives lost in the worst U.S. fire in over a century, Medeiros spoke about a working group, dubbed Build Beyond Barriers, convened under the emergency proclamation. It consists of city, county and state officials and representatives of nonprofits, utilities and the University of Hawaii.  

“Lahaina is not on the table. Not until the community is ready,” she said. “If and when they are ready, if the working group can assist or support in any way, we will.”

She said an assessment is underway to identify available government and private land where new homes could be built to house Lahaina fire survivors, as well as infrastructure and human needs. Over the past few weeks, Medeiros said she’s been meeting with community members, county officials and employees, builders and developers “to determine where can we do what.”

A brush fire razed Lahaina in West Maui, Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
A brush fire razed much of Lahaina in West Maui on Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

As of Wednesday, the working group is looking at three to four government-owned parcels in West Maui and two to three privately owned parcels in Central Maui.

“Infrastructure is the biggest challenge, and as I mentioned earlier, the meetings with the community members, the folks who have actually experienced the displacement are key to any decisions as to what it built and where it’s put,” Medeiros said.

The group has identified about seven existing housing construction projects that might be nudged along or fast-tracked so that people could move in by January. She said the Attorney General’s Office is looking into mortgage forbearance options, similar to what happened during the pandemic. And there’s discussion about using Maui’s 10,000 to 12,000 short-term vacation rental units for long-term use by fire survivors.

“One of the single most meaningful things people can do who own a second, third or fourth home is give that to the community right now so someone can live there for the next year or two,” Medeiros said.

After her remarks, council member Tasha Kama, who chairs the Housing and Land Use Committee, opened the floor to public testimony. More than 120 people had signed up and many expressed distrust of the emergency proclamation.

Tasha Kama chairs the Maui County Council’s Housing and Land Use Committee. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat)

“It is nothing less than a threat to democracy and it appears to be unconstitutional,” said Kihei resident Robin Knox.

Knox said she fully supports a reduction in bureaucratic red tape and unnecessary zoning requirements. But the solution to Hawaii’s housing is crisis is “not to set aside environmental, cultural, sunshine laws, procurement laws, collective bargaining, all of those things, and the proclamation, the expedited process, should only be for affordable housing,” Knox said.

Justin Hughey, a teacher at King Kamehameha III school, which the fire destroyed, said the Maui County Council should pass a resolution distancing itself from the governor’s proclamation.

2015 HSTA VP Justin Hughey.  21 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Justin Hughey. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

“To take down our rights, to take down democracy, you are hurting the teachers, you are hurting the people of Lahaina. Enough is enough. Distance yourself from this as soon as you can,” Hughey said.

Lahaina community activist Leonard “Junya” Nakoa gave what amounted to an extended tirade against the proclamation, saying it undermines people’s voices and gives too much power to an unelected official, meaning Medeiros.

By the time he spoke, Medeiros had already left the meeting.

Nakoa went over his allotted time and refused to stop speaking, prompting Kama to call a recess. When the meeting reconvened, Kama said she would postpone any further testimony until her committee holds another session on Sept. 13.

Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez expressed concern that many members of the public who signed up to testify would not be allowed to do so unless an extended meeting was held.

Kama agreed to make the Sept. 13 session an all-day meeting.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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